On September 8, The Ludovico Ensemble will present the first concert of its twelfth season. I’m really excited about the programming this year, especially after taking a much needed break running the group last season.
The thing I missed most during our year-long hiatus was programming concerts. I have a strong desire to see certain pieces in combination and presented a certain way, and it was frustrating not to have that outlet. With programming I’m primarily concerned with focus and concision. In the realm of concision my goal is simply to keep concerts to around 75 minutes in length including stage changes. My reasoning for this is that the music is often complicated and unfamiliar, and even seasoned listeners lose concentration after a time. Focus in programming is a bit more of a nebulous concept but for me it can mean anything from playing pieces by a single composer, or several composers from the same country, or pieces for the same instrumentation, or just a concert featuring a single evening-length work. A cursory glance through seasons past reveals these ideas in practice.
I don’t think my programming betrays the fact that I’m a percussionist, but there is usually one concert a year focused on percussion music. One thing I find unique about percussion music is how much of it is strictly interpretive and requires no formal percussion training. There are quite a few pieces that are standard percussion repertoire that any skilled musician could play. That isn’t to say it isn’t extremely difficult in a sense, just that one need not have spent thousands of hours practicing snare drum in order to perform it. I’ve played with this idea in that past. At the Lucerne Festival in 2011, I presented a solo percussion recital that did not feature a single percussion instrument, or any sticks or mallets. The whole thing seems a bit ridiculous: imagine a violinist commissioning a violin solo, and the composer comes back saying “actually I’ve decided that you’ll just need a melodica, an alarm clock, and a delay pedal for this piece. You can leave the violin at home.” That would indeed be an unlikely scenario for anyone other than a percussionist.
The first concert of the year explores this sort of percussion music. Fritz Hauser’s as we are speaking is scored for four sets of temple blocks played with plastic chop sticks. It is sonically captivating and rhythmically complex, but from the standpoint of technical execution, nothing is stopping a string quartet from playing this piece. Vinko Globokar’s Kvadrat falls in to the same dramatic absurdist realm for which the composer is known. Unconventionally notated and relying largely on written instructions to convey the music, I’d be very interested in seeing a theater group tackle this piece. Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s in for flute and percussion quartet is the most traditional percussion piece on the program, and perhaps the only one requiring some actual percussion training (only then just because there are some snare drum rolls near the end), but its aleatoric nature shows the influence of the long history of music that relies on the interpretive skill of a percussionist rather than on the technical mastery of a specific instrument.
The Ludovico Ensemble has a long history with the music of local legend Marti Epstein. We first performed her music in 2003, and nine of the Ludovico Ensemble’s twelve concert seasons featured at least one piece by Marti. On this evening we will be celebrating the release of Hypnagogia, a CD of Marti’s music performed by the Ludovico Ensemble. In addition to the title composition, the recording features Grand Island, Hothouse (for piano four hands), and A Little Celestial Tenderness, written for the Ludovico Ensemble’s tenth anniversary. The concert will feature performances of Hothouse and Hypnagogia. The Ludovico Ensemble commissioned Hypnagogia, an evening-length piece for seven players, in 2009. It is an enormously substantial work and I’m incredibly pleased to have had something to do with bringing it in to the world. I hope the release of this recording leads to it being performed by groups far and wide.
It is by design that the Ludovico Ensemble exists as a collective and does not consist of a specific instrumentation. This allows me as a programmer to jump to and from instrumentations as I please. In the past we’ve had concerts for the standard string quartet, but also more unusual combinations like piano, marimba, english horn, and cello (yes there is an entire concert of music out there for that combination…). This program falls somewhere in the middle with the not quite but sort of well-trodden path of the flute/viola/harp trio. First used by Debussy in his 1915 Sonata, the instrumentation has since been employed by hundreds of composers. The centerpiece of this program is John Tavener’s To a Child Dancing in the Wind, which also features soprano (longtime collaborator Aliana de la Guardia in this performance). The Ludovico Ensemble played this piece once before in 2004, and in spite of its overt sentimentality, it remains a favorite of mine. Some of the middle movements sound to me like what might have been the result if Kate Bush had scored The Wicker Man. Also on the concert are Kaija Saariaho’s New Gates and Marti Epstein’s Nachtvoll.
I first became familiar with Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s music when we wrote the piece American Temple for The Ludovico Ensemble while he was a student in the Boston Conservatory. It was a remarkably accomplished piece coming from a first year grad student. Beneath a jagged exterior it conveyed a strong sense of lyricism that I often find lacking in modern music, and something I’ve admired in all of Mischa’s subsequent output. He’s been the ensemble’s composer in residence since 2009 and on this evening we celebrate the release of an as yet untitled recording of his chamber music (I’m thinking of naming the disc I Might Be Wrong after one of the featured pieces, but we’ll see), all pieces written for the Ludovico Ensemble. While the recording features in from the first concert of this season and two other pieces from seasons past, this concert features new pieces for cimbalom and soprano by Mischa and Marti Epstein. I’m not yet sure what Mischa’s piece will be like, but Marti is apparently writing a cantata about Mary Magdelene. I’ll be playing cimbalom, and I’ll be joined by soprano Jen Ashe.